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Clear-comprehension in our activities requires mindfulness, but mindfulness can be weak in clear-comprehension

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I recall an experience I had in a Tucson supermarket some years ago. It is not the only such incident, but it stuck in my mind as exemplary. I was shopping for a retreat I was about to lead, with my friend and student Jeremy. I mindfully placed my cellphone on a counter, and forgot it there as I went on to shop in the produce section. When I realized I was without my phone, I also realized I could not remember where I placed it. No idea, zip, zilch. Backtracking through my memory, I did remember placing it on a surface mindfully, but nothing more. Why couldn’t I remember more detail of this very recent experience? Although I was paying attention to the sensations during that experience, the absence of mental notation, and specifically mental notation with details of the experience was missing from my mindfulness. Every moment of “seeing, reaching, placing” is pretty much like any other. If I had been using specific mental notes at the time, I would have remembered where I placed my phone. In this case “standing on line at Starbucks, placing my phone on the counter etc.” would have been easily accessible to my memory if those notes had been used, and not only would I have instantly remembered where I placed my phone, but I very likely would not have left it there to begin with.

Beyond the expense of replacing a lost phone, we can imagine many other situations where simple mindfulness will not be enough to protect us from all manner of mistakes and accidents. For example, when you are driving, even if using mental notation, if your notes are “rising, falling, seeing, touching” instead of “checking for stop sign, applying brakes” you place yourself and others at risk. If you are upset and in danger of losing your temper with harsh speech “feeling angry, feeling angry” even while using mental notation, will not be as effective in curbing bad behavior as “feeling angry, desiring to scold.” The latter gives you the opportunity to make a better choice.

The Pali Suttas are very clear. If you are doing something, or experiencing something, and you don’t clearly know what you are doing or experiencing, this is considered a state of delusion. Simple mindfulness is not enough to bring wisdom to play in our activities because in our activities our mental bandwidth is largely occupied with maintaining intentions, and reacting. Unlike seated meditation where simply adding a mental note to our experience will bring understanding into the flow of our mindfulness, in our “active” meditation, noting needs to be adjusted to reflect our activities and the mind states that accompany our moment by moment experiences. Besides protecting us from accidents and forgetfulness, the application of clear-comprehension to our daylong activities will prevent those moments of unknowing delusion that the defilement in the mind is quick to exploit.

I’m sure all here can think of multiple examples of such moments where an accident, something important forgotten or some harsh language would have been prevented if clear-comprehension had been the companion of the mind. Of course, formal sitting and walking practice are different, and in those specific circumstances we do want the mind to drop deeper than the level of understanding defined by traditional clear-comprehension. In those situations, the level of attention given to a conceptually organized universe begins to fade as we move more deeply into the contemplation of anicca, anatta and dukkha. As the yogi matures in his or her practice, they will acquire facility in moving between different levels of mindfulness and wisdom, as necessary and appropriate for the activity at hand.


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Hello Daniel-

Thank you for your post/comment. Two themes pop out for me; 1. What does mindfulness actually do compared to what we hope and think it does when we begin our meditative career? 2. What is clear comprehension (sampajañña) and what does it provide on a practical level?

Your comments cover them with question and explanation. Well done.

I’d like to add…

Over the years of my meditation career I went through what might be described as a normal maturation in the understanding of how meditation does in fact develop and mature. For some years I thought that the mastery of mindfulness meditation would solve all my physical and emotional failings. Similar to your examples, when my ‘progress’ and sustainability of my practice while in everyday life didn’t perform to my expectations in rapid fashion my attitudes simply adjusted to the next level of delusion of how mindfulness meditation worked and what it would do for me.

Based on my experiences and study on residential retreat I was pretty sure despite my progress, mindfulness was the answer to my spiritual needs, but because of the doubts during my everyday experiences I began to wonder if my skills or abilities were good enough for the job. I began to judge and blame myself for not being able to maintain retreat level mindfulness during normal activities. I finally came to realize that these notions of what mindfulness can and should do arose from a residential retreat bias and both they and I needed other types of support for when I returned to relationships, job, entertainment and just being a normal guy doing normal things in order to survive and thrive in an everyday lay life.

For years I would do almost annual silent residential retreats and come home and expect the insights and skills that I gleaned on retreat would, if not have uprooted ignorance in my everyday activities, would have sufficiently ameliorated the habitual tendencies towards ignorance and unwholesomeness that held me captive before the retreat. I thought that, at will, I could wield the mighty sword of mindfulness in all situations and forever more be free from suffering.

Didn’t happen to the degree that I was hoping for or expecting.

For those of us who use vipassanā (mindfulness) meditation as our core practice, the silent residential retreat paradigm affects our attitudes towards what we think the practice will do for us in everyday life and then traps us with an unseen prejudice. This prejudice, that the techniques we use on retreat can be universally applied in all situations, blinds us into thinking that vipassanā is the one and only tool to meditative fulfillment. It’s not and is naive to think one meditative tool will suit all activities in all situations for anyone, but is especially true for lay meditators in their everyday lives.

Monastics have their Vinaya Pitaka (Basket of Discipline) which governs all aspects of retreat and non-retreat life and supports the continuity of their meditative practices in a variety of unstated ways. The Vinaya and the culture of being a monastic, if practiced with integrity, is a system that funnels all waking moments towards learning the skillful tools necessary to develop and maintain wisdom during all activities. Lay people have no such template and are often instructed after a residential retreat, after living akin to a monastic for 9 or 90 days, to ‘go home and be as mindful as you can’.

As you point out in your note you implicitly ask what other ways are available to us to practice. I ask, are there other types of meditation that our trainings and prejudices generally don’t see because they aren’t taught in the residential retreat milieu? You point out sampajañña (clear comprehension) and I will add any wholesome intention that supports Superior Right View/Understanding* and Superior Right Intention*. This may include practices such as reflection, ritual, concentration/samatha, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, service to others, active cultivation and practice of generosity/loving-kindness/compassion/empathetic joy for others, etc.

As pointed out above, residential vipassanā retreats teach the necessary tools for meditative transformation, and due to the environment in which they are taught, our teachers can’t and don’t actively teach the skills that are specific in supporting a lay daily practice. It’s the point of a residential retreat, to learn how to hone only those particular meditative skills which are not as readily available to us in our daily lives exactly because it is a daily life with lots of ambiguity and busyness and doing. A residential meditation retreat offers the meditator the opportunity to glimpse past what daily life veils. To address this obvious gulf between the skills needed for deep insight while on formal retreat and the integration of those insights in our everyday lives we need to look again at the suttas and see what is there and use it.

I think finding additional tools from the suttas in order to support a spiritual life as householders is important for any lay person wishing to establish a doable ‘enlightenment project’. In other words, lay people need to apply the various appropriate tools offered to us in the teachings to all our experiences. Continuity of either mundane* or superior Right Understanding will increase the fertility of wholesome moments. The more wholesomeness, the greater the potential for affecting changes to unwholesome habits and patterns.

It is as simple as that. It is as simple as cultivating sampajañña, mindful rituals, reflection, and a continuous attention to the cultivation of the Noble Eightfold Path to establish a link between retreat insight and applying it to everyday life. Learning how and when to use vipassanā when vipassanā is called for, using samatha when samatha is called for, using sampajañña when sampajañña is called for, using kindness, patience and humor and the other types of skillful means mentioned above when they are called for is the key to creating both a physical and mental environment that will allow continuity of wise attention to arise in all aspects of any 24/7.

Mindfulness is the root to meditative wisdom. If done correctly, the process of attention obliges the meditator to see reality through the Three Characteristics: annica (impermanence), dukkha (dissatisfaction), and anatta (non-self). The other practices detailed and alluded to in this note reinforce and links our formal meditative practices and as a result melds our lives into a seamless continuous development of the Noble Eightfold Path.

Without continuity of wise attention at all levels of consciousness throughout our days (as much as our skills permit) we are endlessly pulling up our carrots before they ripen.

A lay life, while buying tomatoes or having coffee with a friend, is not the same as slow walking or mindful eating at a retreat center. Each type of activity, in its own way, offers the meditator a rich opportunity to establish continuity of attention. Each and every moment using the appropriate tool for the situation in the moment is the task, using all the tools for the task is the answer.

As householders individually and as a sangḥa we must discover, experiment, and bring to fruition all of the non-retreat practices the Buddha offers to both the laity and the monastic sangḥas.

*Mundane attention to the Noble Eightfold Path is the practice of cultivating thought/speech/action in order to create more wholesome internal and external environments without the intention for enlightenment. Superior attention to the Noble Eightfold Path is the practice that utilizes the practice for the development of full enlightenment. See Bhikkhu Bodhi’s The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering.